dont read all of the tweets

There is often the assumption that the information economy expects us to consume more and more, leading us to process more but concentrate less. Some have called this a “fear of missing out” (or FOMO), a “blend of anxiety, inadequacy and irritation that can flare up while skimming social media.” However, most of these arguments about FOMO make the false assumption that the information economy wants and expects us to always process more. This isn’t true; we need to accept the reality that the information economy as well as our own preferences actually value, even need, missing out.

Many do feel in over their heads when scrolling social media streams. Especially those of us who make a hobby or career in the attention/information economy, always reading, sharing, commenting and writing; tweeting, blogging, retweeting and reblogging. Many of us do feel positioned directly in the path of a growing avalanche of information, scared of missing out and afraid of losing our ability to slow down, concentrate, connect and daydream, too distracted by that growing list of unread tweets. While it seemed fun and harmless (Tribble-like?) at first, have we found ourselves drowning in the information streams we signed up for and participate in?

As Cheri Lucas, recently said,

I have a Fear of Missing Out on the best links and stories of the day, hesitant of taking breaks from Twitter—of jumping off the moving train—because I feel it will be harder to jump back on. […] Sometimes I envision my Twitter feed as rushing water: my presence is a dam, and each tweet is debris making its way downstream. It’s now a challenge to let information simply flow—to let tweets swim by without me seeing or interacting with them.

Rob Horning applies this line of thought to his work on “the data self,” describing our relationship to producing and consuming (prosuming) on social media with respect to an analysis of contemporary capitalism. Horning’s assumption is that capitalism requires of us to always consume and share more and more. The logic is that sharing something, getting some retweets, likes, reblogs and new friends and followers means added social and cultural capital and therefore doing more of this thus equals even more cultural capital:

The goal is the same: higher throughput: more consuming work achieved in less time, with fewer barriers in the form of human interaction to impede the quantifiable consumption experience. The faster we can turn what we consume into a form of information, the more our consumption efforts are recouped as a form of labor for capital. Until the advent of social media, much of human interaction escaped being converted into information. Fortunately that problem has been more or less solved. Social media has at last made social interaction “more convenient.”

This need to consume more and more is presumed to be linear. Horning goes on,

Information doesn’t pass by us without leaving a residue; the more we let slip past the more we feel ignorant. […]It shifts my mental mode from thinking to concentration; from comprehension to stamina. I have to process all the information into a product for social consumption rather than actually let this information facilitate sociality as something not to be consumed but experienced. In other words, online sociality may be a form of social deskilling designed to get us to perform more quasi-social behavior (sharing, etc.) while enjoying it less.

This neglects the reality that what markets (and ourselves) actually want is not pure quantity. Those “frictions” Horning laments are actually essential to the economic productivity he criticizes. The value, from the perspective of our own enjoyment as well as the companies attempting to commoditize our labor, is not just absent-mindedly scrolling, trying to keep up with everything, skimming articles and retweeting along the way. Sure, that will provide that quantitatively-largest amount of social-data, the most rows and columns in their mysterious databases, but does not reflect the full value of social media.

Rather, the value that users provide on social media happens precisely when they do slow down, when they log off, when they concentrate and when they “miss out” on some things in order to more fully engage with others. There is value in choosing to read one essay closely instead of skimming ten. First, of course, there is the personal enjoyment of digging into something and, also, this sort of attention is more likely to spin off into new ideas and perhaps even more original content. Logging off and working on new ideas ultimately is more valuable to both yourself and attention-capitalism than the brainless retweeting Horning thinks information-capitalism is encouraging.

This reminds me of the discussions around “logging off” and “disconnecting” for a day or weekend as a way to lessen the role of social media in our lives. They also neglect the fact that what we do offline is the fuel that runs the engine of social media; your “offline” weekend is where you’ll take the photos, read the books and come up with the ideas that will end up on your social media streams when you log back on.

Fundamentally, the “logging off” discussion, like the “fear of missing out” folks, wrongly assume a too strong distinction between the on and offline, what I call the fallacy of “digital dualism” (Horning knew I’d call him on this). The on and offline are not zero-sum; logging off might ultimately provide you with more social media content; likewise, reading, linking and tweeting less­­­—”missing out”—can ultimately make you more productive and valuable.

If one does sense a pressure to always read and share more and more to the point of uncreative exhaustion, I feel that is a misreading of what we actually want to do as well as what the attention economy actually expects of us (aka, you’re doing it wrong). Remembering that overtweeting and oversharing are often admonished, social media encourages a balance of being present, sharing information and also providing our own unique insights; something that requires time, absence and learning to appreciate “missing out.”